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Penguins put Game 7 legacy on line at Capitals

Take 5-0 record all-time in deciding contests on road against Washington, chance to continue assault on Stanley Cup repeat

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WASHINGTON -- The last time they were here in this situation, it was 2009.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had gone to the Stanley Cup Final the year before, but won each of their first three series in five games or fewer and lost the Final in six. Now they had won their first-round series in six and were playing at the Washington Capitals in Game 7.

They won 6-2 and it felt like a breakthrough. They went on to sweep the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final and win the Final against the Detroit Red Wings in seven games, again on the road.

"You guys are bringing back memories, eh?" Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said with a laugh when reporters asked about that moment.

Fleury made 19 saves against the Capitals in that Game 7, including an early stop of a breakaway by forward Alex Ovechkin.

"Those are stressful moments and tough moments, tough games, and to win and …" Fleury said, his voice trailing off. "Once you do it, then you start believing in your team and in yourself."

What will we remember after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at Verizon Center on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)?

Will this be a breakthrough for the Capitals, the back-to-back Presidents' Trophy winners? Will they defeat the Penguins in a playoff series for the second time in 10 tries? Will they avenge their second-round loss last year and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998?

Will this be Fleury's last game for the Penguins? He has two seasons left on his contract, but his future is uncertain because of the emergence of Matt Murray and the NHL Expansion Draft to stock the roster of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Will this be forward Chris Kunitz's last game for the Penguins? He's 37, and his contract is up.

Will this be Penguins center Matt Cullen's last game in the NHL? He's 40, and his contract is up.

Video: Who will the impact players be in Game 7 for PIT-WSH?

Will another year pass without a repeat champion? The Red Wings were the last to win the Cup in back-to-back years, in 1997 and '98.

Or will the Penguins recover from back-to-back losses, defeat the Capitals yet again and improve to 6-0 in Game 7 situations on the road? Will they keep their season alive and face the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final?

"We have experience with this," said Cullen, who is 5-0 in Game 7s in his NHL career, including a 2-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final last year. "We've dealt with it in the past.

"It's never easy losing a game, especially at home when you have a chance to close it out. We chalk it up as a missed opportunity. It's one of those things that in the playoffs, you can't dwell on it long. We know the recipe for our success. We need to get to it, and we know that."

The Penguins were 20 minutes from eliminating the Capitals in five games. Holding a 3-1 series lead, they took a 2-1 lead into the third period of Game 5, but gave up three third-period goals and lost 4-2, and then gave up five straight goals in Game 6. They lost 5-2 only after scoring twice late in the third period.

The truth is, they have been outplayed throughout these playoffs. They have been outshot in 10 of their 11 games, in each game in this series, 200-133 by the Capitals over six games.

"I don't think that we can really point to one game and say, 'Wow, we played great that game,'" Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said. "There's a lot of things that I think we can do better."

Without top defenseman Kris Letang, Pittsburgh hasn't broken out of its zone, used its speed through the neutral zone and sustained possession in the offensive zone well enough. The Penguins have spent too much time in their zone, and like the Columbus Blue Jackets did in the first round, the Capitals have pounded them physically. It has taken a toll.

Coach Mike Sullivan spent a lot of time at practice Tuesday drawing on the white board and barking instructions. He wants the Penguins to move the puck and their feet more quickly so they can put the Capitals on their heels, and to make better decisions with the puck so they can spend more time in the offensive zone.

"I think as a group we need to get on the attack a little bit more and go at them," Cullen said. "I think we've been a little bit hesitant with the puck, and that's not our best game.

"We haven't played our best game in this series. That's a little bit frustrating, but at the same time, that keeps us very optimistic heading into next game."

Game 7. Washington.

Whatever happens, they will remember it for a long time.

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